Buenos Aires, 30 December
We step out of the subway and paper fills the air, falling from the open windows of a tall, blue-glass office building. Financial crisis? As we walk wind carries fragments of letters, records and spread sheets across the wide boulevard to collect in drifts by the newspaper kiosks.
In the Plaza de Mayo is a photography exhibition of the riots from December 2001. Just over ten years ago, what still threatens Europe, happened in Argentina. The country was in recession, the deficit was 2.5% of GDP, the IMF advised President de la Rua to cut $1.4 billion from his budgets.
Hopes were pinned on a quick bounce back, but within a year GDP shrank and Standard & Poor put Argentina on credit watch. More money was borrowed – from the IMF, the World Bank – economic ministers came and went – Ricardo Lopez Murphy lasted just eight days. There were strikes over cuts to civil service pensions, the highest-earning officials were effectively paid IOUs.
Then in December, Argentina failed to meet its deficit targets and the IMF withheld a $1.3 billion loan payment. People started to take their money out of the banks, flip it to dollars and send it abroad. The Government froze all accounts for 12 months. Then the riots.
Fire, petrol bombs, police beating people as their families try to drag them away – everything is larger than life with heavy contrast and saturated colour. This is as close as I ever want to get to a civil disturbance. This is blood in a drain, a man facedown and the cue-ball eye of a horse right in the camera’s lens. Here a helicopter carries de la Rua away from the palace and out of Government.
The Palace (La Casa Rosada) is at one end of the plaza and in the grounds we find an altogether different exhibition, one by the Government’s official presidential photographer – whose name escapes me (and Google) when I write later. Most of it centres on Nestor Kirchner, his death and succession by his wife Cristina Kirchner.
Argentina’s news is engrossed with the saga of her cancer, and the apparent cluster that’s claimed four other left-leaning presidents in Latin America;. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and her predecessor, Luiz Lula. Is this a conspiracy? Yes, if you believe Chavez who points the finger squarely at the US. Is it a conspiracy that Kirchner’s thyroid cancer appeared at the time of her second-term election? Of course not. The glamourous Eva Peron of the 21 Century appears to be making a good recovery.
But plenty of older women look like they’re in shock – as they walk the streets with paper in their hair, or as they slice into manhole-sized steaks in the city restaurants. Don’t be fooled. They’ve not just seen one of the many dog walkers drag a maypole of tired, panting, hounds under a bus. It’s plastic surgery.
Everyone in Buenos Aires is beautiful – tanned gold, fair hair and immaculately turned out in considered wardrobe. Everyone gets old. At some point, a woman here must look in the mirror and make a decision; let time take its course or crash diet and pin anything loose behind the ears.
It’s terrible, but then what to do I know? I’m a man, and men in Buenos Aires check women out all the time. As we walk away from the square, T stops by a group of guys to ask why paper falls from the buildings. The main dude just blatantly checks out her chest and then works his way up. ‘Aren’t you freaked about by it?’, I’ll ask later. ‘No’, she’ll say, ‘It’s it’s like it has to be done before they can start talking to you.’ The only thing worse about being ‘spoken to’, is to be ignored.
So, what’s with the paper on December 30? The dude says, ‘It’s our last day of work, we finish at 11, throw our papers out of the window and then get drunk!’ ‘What about recycling?’ asks T. The dude and his friends laugh. ‘Recycling? There’s no recycling here!’
This is not true, as we walk on, pockets of Buenos Aires’ poor drag carts and collect the scraps to sell by the kilo to the paper mills on the outskirts of the city. By the Ministry of Defence we search for our birthdays in the remains of a diary. I pick up Sua Herrers’ X-Ray; March 10 2011. It looks like he (she?) has two left feet and a fracture across one dorsal surface. I hope medical records in the street are an indication of recovery.
I was in Buenos Aires only three days, but I want to go back; to the National Cemetery where we utterly failed to see Evita’s grave and to find the taxi driver who looked like a sour George Clooney. He’s there, patrolling the city in his crisp white shirt, with the seat pushed back as far as it’ll go. He still nods along to the blues CDs he keeps stacked up by the gearstick. I hope he picks us up at the airport. I hope this time he takes us to the hotel, instead of dropping us off next to a group of teenagers throwing bangers around with a curt ‘buena suerte’.